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Gainesville targeting unincorporated islands of land
Property surrounded by city may be annexed
This house across Riverbend Circle from Riverbend Church is in an unincorporated island surrounded by the city of Gainesville. - photo by Tom Reed

Gainesville may be cleaning up its borders in the next couple of months and getting rid of a substantial number of unincorporated "islands" within the city.

In the next two months, city officials plan to send letters to the owners of approximately 560 properties that have become "islands" within the city limits, notifying them that soon, they could be city residents.

The city is looking at annexing all of its county islands, properties that are in unincorporated Hall County but are surrounded on all sides by land within Gainesville's incorporated city limits.

City officials say the move will help clean up the city's borders and make it easier to provide local services.

Approximately 560 properties could be affected by the mass annexation, more than 80 percent of them residential, Planning Director Rusty Ligon said.

State law allows municipalities to annex property without the owner's consent if it lies in such an island, City Manager Bryan Shuler said. Gainesville officials have been discussing the annexation of county islands for years.

City officials have planned a November meeting with property owners who could be affected. They will receive a letter in late October notifying them how their property tax and utility bills will change if City Council decides to annex their property.

Ligon, who along with Gainesville Principal Planner Matt Tate has researched the potential annexation for several months now, estimates that if all the properties were added to Gainesville's map, it would add approximately $158,000 in property tax revenue to the city and additional $429,000 to the school system.

Shuler said the main focus of the annexation is not revenue. Rather, it is to eliminate confusion when it comes to delivering local services such as dispatching law enforcement or firefighters in an emergency.

Leigh Stallings-Jarrell, operations manager for Hall County Dispatch, said the city's current boundaries sometimes leave dispatchers asking who they should send on specific emergency calls.

In her 17 years with Hall County Dispatch, Stallings-Jarrell said the questionable boundaries have not caused any serious issues. The dispatch center operates on a strict policy of "when in doubt send them out," she said. "We're always going to start somebody there, no matter what."

Typically, when residents call with an emergency, dispatchers enter the caller's address into a Computer Aided Dispatch system. But the system is not always able to tell whether or not an address is in the Gainesville city limits or in unincorporated Hall County, Stallings-Jarrell said.

As a backup plan, dispatchers look at a color-coded map that differentiates between city and county boundaries. But dispatchers sometimes have to ask the battalion chiefs of the fire departments and road supervisors with the various law enforcement departments who should respond, Stallings-Jarrell said.

Most of the city and county fire and EMS crews know their territory well and can quickly relay whether a certain address is within their coverage area, she said. "Most of the time, they know right off (who should respond)," Stallings-Jarrell said.

As the county's population grows, however, the process may not work as easily, and cleaning up the city's borders could help.

Fairness is also a factor in the island annexation, Shuler said. Those island property owners whose properties benefit from city services like road or intersection improvements should have to pay city taxes like their in-city neighbors.

"There's a lot of these islands that are in areas where the city has made substantial investments in infrastructure that directly benefits those properties and others in the area, but only those that are in the city are helping to pay for those investments through their city taxes," Shuler said.

No doubt, the annexations will bring in more property tax revenue for the city, but they will also bring a slew of new issues for city departments to contend with. Ligon said city department heads will meet soon to discuss the issues they might have to deal with if City Council follows through with the annexation.

One is zoning. Ligon and Tate estimate that the mass annexation will bring in about 74 properties that are currently not compatible with Gainesville's zoning rules, including about 86 mobile homes, which are not allowed under city code.

If annexed, property owners whose homes do not meet the city's zoning rules, such as owners of mobile home parks, would be essentially "grandfathered in" and be able to continue operating within the city limits. However, an owner of a mobile home park could not add more units after the annexation.

"If it was a legally established use at the time of the annexation, regardless of the zoning that is placed on the property, there would be no consequence to the property owner unless the property owner increased the degree of the nonconformity," Shuler said.

If the use of that nonconforming property was abandoned for 12 months, the property would revert to the city's zoning rules, Ligon said.

Along with zoning, all city departments will brace for an increased service area as all but about 100 of the properties in question are residential properties. That could mean increased costs for the city.

"Generally in a lot of residential areas, as many studies would point out, the cost of service often exceeds the revenue that it generates," Shuler said. "... The motivation behind annexing the islands has always had less to do with revenue potential and more to do with how we deliver services."

The final decision rests in the City Council's ultimate vote on the issue, which will come after at least two public information meetings that will begin in late November.

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